Hot Buttons Week One: "Choosing Life: A Grace-Filled Response To Abortion"
Admittedly, preachers usually don't preach on issues like Abortion, True Religion, the Environment and Sexuality unless they are fairly certain about the outcomes of their sermons. To put this another way, they will only preach on these kinds of things when they know that virtually everyone (or at least the biggest donors) in the congregation will agree with what they have to say.
Some call this "preaching to the choir."
The trouble is, choirs are typically full of people with differing views on these and many other issues. And you don't want to make the choir mad. Trust me.
"Why would you willingly preach on this stuff?" someone asked me recently.
"Because I feel like I am supposed to," I replied.
"Better you than me," they said.
So why is it that we all sort of get anxious when hot button issues come up in the context of church? I've received a few emails and had more than a few people approach me with vague and general concerns about this sermon series that I have yet to preach.
Apparently, it's not cool for your pastor to be "political."
Unless you agree with whatever "political" opinion your pastor is espousing, endorsing or proclaiming, of course. Then it's okay. Better than okay, even.
I tend to think that sort of thinking is boring, and predictable.
For the record, this sermon series is going to be political, but not in the way you might think. What you won't be hearing is my endorsement of a political party, candidate or platform. When it comes to the issues we'll be discussing over the next few weeks, I'm not taking sides---especially as they relate to conservative or progressive points of view.
But this sermon series is political in that it's focused on Jesus, and Jesus was political. Jesus took sides. Jesus had a point of view. He had opinions, beliefs, convictions and standards. He challenged the status quo, questioned the government and religious establishment and even infuriated his own family.
Jesus tended to piss people off on both sides of an issue---before he called them into faithfulness, and sacrifice and abundant life, that is.
Here's the news: Christians are divided over issues like abortion, sexuality, religion and the environment.
I would venture to guess that if you scratched just below the surface of most Christian faith communities you would find people with opinions who are vastly different from the people they are singing next to in the choir loft, serving with on mission trips, teaching alongside in Sunday school...
And as the recent brouhaha over chicken sandwiches tells us anything, Christians don't debate with one another all that well, or at all.
I have to confess that I am a part of the problem. Like most of us, I need a new way to think and to speak about these hard issues that divide us with words that are grace-filled and loving.
This is why I want to preach this series on "Hot Button" issues. I shot a quick video to sort of explain this more fully:
Hot Button from Leon Bloder on Vimeo.
Yes. It's totally an homage (rip off) of a certain author/preacher (Rob Bell) who also has cool black glasses, and who made videos like this (only better) with cool music (that I totally used). So?
This Sunday I'll begin this series with a sermon entitled, "Choosing Life," a sermon on the topic of Abortion.
Let me begin with a story of personhood and belonging...
On the day that my wife brought me confirmation that she was indeed eight weeks pregnant with our first child, I was working a twelve hour shift at Circuit City selling appliances to retirees from Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Hey, it was a living.
She walked into the store waving a photo that was taken of the ultrasound she'd just received. "Want to see a picture of your baby?" she asked me. I stared at it, my mind trying to decipher exactly what it was that I was supposed to be seeing because none of it looked like a baby to me.
"That's it right there," she told me pointing to a small, shapeless mass on the photo. I ran around the store showing my friends. "Look at this picture of my kid!" I told them and then I would show them the shapeless mass.
Eighteen years later that shapeless mass wears my clothes and shoes, is impossible to get out of bed in the morning and will be graduating high school this Spring and heading off to college.
Here's my point: that shapeless mass was instantly beloved and desired by my wife and I. The little blur in the photograph, who would one day become my son had personhood status from the moment we imagined him.
So how does someone else, when confronted with the same knowledge, and perhaps the same sort of photograph, get to decide that the shapeless mass in their photo isn't human? Why is one tiny baby awarded personhood and the other isn't?
This then is the struggle. In order to defend the arguments for a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy, the debate has shifted to arguments over personhood. Because if you can cast doubt on the fact that a shapeless mass in an ultrasound photo is actually a person, it makes it much easier to stomach when you are arguing that it's okay to "terminate" it.
Before we go any further, though, I have to say this, and it's important, not only for the sake of this present discussion, but for the sake of my entire sermon.
No one really wants an abortion. This should be an undisputed fact---the place where the grace-filled response we are seeking should have it's origins.
If you do not support abortion rights, it's far too easy to demonize people who've had one. Trust me. Getting an abortion was the last thing they ever wanted. And based on what I've read, and to the people I've talked to who've had them, no amount of rationalization about when life begins or doesn't makes it better.
So let's go there for a moment... to those places where people find themselves full of fear, dread, shame and all the rest of it.
Imagine that an act of unspeakable violence has been perpetrated on either you or a woman that you care deeply about. Imagine that as a result of this violence she becomes pregnant. Imagine dealing with that decision---one where you think about a child who would always be a visible reminder of the violation and horror the mother experienced.
Imagine a young girl full of promise and hope, born into a good family, churchgoing folk with high standards and good standing. Imagine she finds herself pregnant. She thinks of how her father may have to resign as an elder in their church, how her mother will react, what her friends and family members will say to her. The guilt and the shame that she feels overwhelms her and she ponders what it would be like to take her own life.
Imagine an impoverished woman with four children and a husband who has left her, and who offers her no support. She discovers that she is pregnant, the product of a poor decision in a moment of weakness. The electric bill is due, and the water is about to be turned off. Her job has little benefits, and she worries that if she misses much work they will let her go. The thought of another child weighs on her like the weight of the world.
These are worst case scenarios, to be sure. And I'd like to add one more--a real scenario--that was actually shared with me by a teacher in my church.
Imagine standing in front of a nine year old victim of incest, who is pregnant.
I don't think you can think of a scenario that is worse, to be honest. I can't even say any more about it without feelings of absolute revulsion, sorrow and anger.
No one wants this. No one wants to find themselves facing any of these scenarios, either personally or with someone you love. And there are no easy answers to these worst cases.
Despite these worst cases, however, if we call ourselves Christians, and we say that we are guided and instructed by the Bible, we cannot ignore what it has to say about the sanctity and wonder of life. We also cannot ignore what it has to say about God's preference for the weak, the marginalized and the least of these, which I would argue include children, both born and unborn among their number.
So what does the Bible have to say about the sanctity of life? About children?
As it turns out, quite a bit---far too many passages for me to mention here, in fact. So, I'll pick and choose a few that sort of represent the rest.
To begin, the God of Scripture abhors the killing of children, particularly the sacrifice of children to false gods.
In Leviticus 18:21 we have this: "'Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD."
Molech was one of the Canaanite gods worshipped by some of the tribes the people of Israel encountered on their way to the Promised Land. Molech was also one of many ancient gods that demanded child sacrifice, a practice that was still going on in pagan worship even during the time of Jesus. Large brass statues of Molech, who was typically depicted with outstretched arms, were superheated from the inside. Infants would have been placed on the outstretched arms of the statue, and either burned alive there, or in some instances the statue would have a fiery middle, and babies would roll down the arms into it where they were consumed.
According to one historical account, drums were beaten loudly during all of this so that no one could hear the cries of the child.
In Ezekiel 16:20-21 we have this explanation by the prophet as to why the people of Israel were in exile, and their cities despoiled and ruined: 20 “‘And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough?'"
There are easily twenty or more of these kinds of passages.
We also have more than a few indicators that God has an intimate relationship with us even as unborn children.
The most famous passage of Scripture indicating this relationship is Psalm 139:13-16:
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Jesus cares about every living being.
John 1:3-5 tells us about the nature of Christ in relation to Creation, and living beings. Those of us who believe that Jesus is God, understand this passage to mean that through Jesus, God created all things. Which means that Jesus is intimately connected to Creation, including human beings: 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
We also discover that Jesus had a special place in his heart for children, who were the lowest on the social strata of his day. In Luke 18:15-17 we find this: 15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Based on the Biblical witness (which we've only touched upon here) here's what I believe that Christians who believe they are guided by the witness of Scripture need to affirm regarding issues of life, personhood and God's preference for the least of these.
1. Whenever new life begins in any pregnancy the creative power of God is at work and Jesus Christ has already died for that new life.
2. If we do violence to that new life, we assume responsibility for destroying a work of God.
3. Whether we accord personhood to the unborn child or not, he or she is a manifestation of new life that has come from God.
A good way of thinking about this as it relates to the teachings of Jesus is through the lens of his story about The Good Samaritan. In this story Jesus calls for us to widen our scope of moral concern. To define an unborn child as a nonperson essentially narrows that scope rather than widening it.
Now, before those who claim to support a "right to life," start to get smug, we need to put this out there: No one has a "right to life." It doesn't exist. In life and death we belong to God. We do have the "right," so to speak, because of God's mercy and love, to make choices. Which means that people have the ability to make choices when it comes to abortion.
So, if those who claim to be "pro-choice" are now feeling smug, don't get too comfortable. Having a "right to choose" actually means that there is a choice. So it's not enough to simply say that you support a woman's right to choose whether she should terminate her pregnancy, you should be committed to providing her with actual choices, some of which should include not terminating her pregnancy.
Which brings me to why we are gathered here in the first place: to find grace-filled responses to this divisive issue. And I think this is where the Church needs to step up.
First, if Christians believe in the power of the Resurrection, then the Church needs to live out the Resurrection in the way it addresses questions of life. No situation, no person is beyond redemption. God is in the business of taking even the worst case scenarios and creating something beautiful from them. If we say we believe in the Resurrection, we need to live and love in hope. Practically, this means that Christians on both sides of this issue need to stop demonizing one another, and focus instead on the fact that no one really wants abortion, and that God is still in the resurrection business. Even worst case scenarios can be redeemed. Pam Stenzel, a renowned Christian author and speaker, is the result of a violent rape. Her mother was raped and then discovered she was pregnant. She chose to have the baby despite the pressure not to do so. Now, Pam reaches millions of students in schools and communities across America every year with a message of abstinence, self-respect and character.
Second, the Church cannot let men abdicate their responsibilities when it comes to their relationships, and fatherhood. While the Church, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, should rightly defend the empowerment of women everywhere, it must also seek to empower and instruct men as well. If a man calls himself a Christian, but is a "deadbeat dad," or the kind of guy who abandons his pregnant wife or girlfriend, there's a serious disconnect in his head about what truly constitutes being a Christian. And I believe the Church needs to invest in teaching, mentoring and guiding men in their roles as husbands and fathers. Christians on both sides of this issue can find agreement in the fact that if we work to strengthen families, we will reduce abortions.
Third, the Church must sacrifice itself in service to the weak. For many Christians this means sacrifice on behalf of the unborn child with little thought for the "weakness" of the mother. For others it means sacrifice for the mother with little or no thought to the unborn child. What if it was both? What if the Church poured itself out in defense of both mother and unborn child? What if instead of always trying to state what we are against, we actually did something that showed what we are for? Both people who support and who are opposed to abortion rights can come together and find ways for the Church to offer resources, guidance and support to women facing these decisions, and in so doing will almost certainly reduce abortions as a result.
Some might be struggling here to imagine how all of this might be borne out in a practical way within the public sphere.
To begin with, I think the "either/or" junk has to stop. The World needs to be shown a better way.
Both supporters and opponents of abortion in the Church use the same tired old methods to get what they want. They include spending millions of dollars, countless hours, abundant energy and a whole lot of rhetoric trying to legislate the issue one way or another. A book I read recently had this great quote, "No one can legislate what can be done purely out of love."* What if instead of spending resources on trying to legislate and protest, Christians on both sides of this issue actually invested in reaching out to those who are facing the decision to terminate their pregnancy, and offered them choices? If Christians say they are pro-life, then let them prove it. If Christians say they are pro-choice, let them offer choices.
What has greater power? Protests or mercy?
Don't you dare stand outside a women's clinic holding a sign and screaming that the teenage girl going inside is a whore and a murderer when you don't have the courage or conviction to walk up to her, embrace her, and offer to pay her medical bills and adopt her child.
And listen, don't you dare say that you are "pro-choice," when you won't even entertain the notion that given the right circumstances many women would indeed choose not to terminate their pregnancy. Stop throwing up the worst case scenarios all of the time to strengthen your position. They are what they are. Worst. Case. Scenarios.
How about this: What if the Church became a safe refuge for women facing these decisions? What if the Church was the place you knew you could go if you needed help, guidance, love and unconditional acceptance without judgement and with total grace and mercy? Sounds pretty good doesn't it?
Sounds like----the kingdom of God. Sounds like a place that's choosing life, and more abundantly.
Sounds like a place I'd like to hang out.
It sounds a little like this...
A Vietnamese Christian by the name of Tong Phuc decided that he could do something about the fact that his country has one of the higest abortion rates on the face of the earth. Phuc is a building contractor, and had been fairly successful at it. He took his savings and purchased a plot of land and then developed it as a cemetery to bury the tiny bodies of unborn children. Everyone thought he was crazy, including his own family.
When word got around what Phuc was doing, however, it had an unexpected result. Women who had undergone abortions began to visit the cemetery to pray and burn incense. Phuc began talking to the women who visited, and urged them to spread the news that if they knew anyone who was considering an abortion, to let them know they should talk to him first. He and his family began sheltering women with unwanted pregnancies. Over sixty babies have been born in his shelter and twenty-seven of these have returned home with their mothers.
"I will continue this job until the last breath of my life," Phuc said in an interview. "I will encourage my children to take over to help other people who are underprivileged."**
That's some serious kingdom work right there.
Makes you want to do something doesn't it?
*(Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg)
** (Associated Press, "Vietnamese Man, on Anti-Abortion Mission, Opens Home to Moms and Babies")